‘The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo’ – Taylor Jenkins Reid

I’d heard lots about this book over the last few months, and the fictional Evelyn Hugo seems to have created quite a stir. The premise certainly made me curious – I couldn’t imagine what would possess someone to marry seven times – but I was reluctant to start this in case I didn’t feel quite the same way.
From the outset we are spun a story about the woman the world knows as Evelyn Hugo. We learn that her daughter has died and she is going to auction some of her well-known dresses to raise money for cancer charities. For reasons that we are not permitted to know until much later on, reclusive Evelyn agrees to an interview – but she insists on a relatively inexperienced journalist called Monique being the one she’ll talk to.
Though Evelyn holds the cards here, we follow Monique as she meets with Evelyn and prepares to interview her. Upon their first meeting we are told that Evelyn wants Monique to write her biography. We know there’ll be a reason for this, but we don’t get told what it is until we’re truly invested in the situation.
I was intrigued by the press excerpts from the time as they showed the reality of the world Evelyn was part of. We are given Evelyn’s frank account of her relationships and her determination to rise to the top of her profession. We follow Evelyn through her marriages to her co-stars, a well-known singer, a director and her best friend amongst others. We see the price she was prepared to pay for her fame and her feeling of wanting to achieve what she felt she should. What we are told fairly early on is how she sacrifices so much for her true love, the one she has never spoken of until now.
While Evelyn herself was not always the most likeable of characters, she was presented in a way that elicited sympathy. Sometimes she made terrible decisions, but she often made these decisions from a desire to do right by those she loved. I felt quite angry for her and Harry, and so many other characters, that they could not be honest about themselves because of attitudes in the world they inhabited.
Monique was a character that I couldn’t quite fathom. Her interactions with Evelyn allowed us to slowly learn about her life, and the time devoted to her background and situation certainly had me thinking she would be more integral to the story than she initially seemed to be. By the time we have revealed the exact link I was imagining all sorts. The revelation certainly justified Monique’s somewhat ambivalent attitude to Evelyn, and it made sense of her actions towards the end.

 

‘Autoboyography’ – Christina Lauren

I knew very little about this book before picking it up, but I am so pleased that I did.
Our main character is Tanner, a young boy who identifies as bisexual. He is out to his parents, who are supportive and honest with him in such a way that felt like this book should be a call to all parents to read, regardless of their child’s sexuality. His father is Jewish and his mother has had a difficult time, cut off from her Mormon family for supporting her sister when she came out. That family background is crucial to know for this story, as it definitely plays a huge part in how they treat Tanner.
The family have moved to a small town, mostly Mormon, and Tanner has opted to keep quiet about his sexuality. His best friend, Autumn, doesn’t know this pretty important detail about him and he imagines things will tick along until the time he leaves for college…
Then he and Autumn sign up for an elective that involves writing a novel. There’s a student who took the course the previous year who is about to have his book published and who is going to act as a support teacher during the course. The young man concerned, Sebastian Brother, is the son of the local bishop. His life is pretty much set out for him…so, it’s an inevitable complication when Tanner falls for him.
What follows is a time-old story – two people trying to work out how they feel about each other – but the back-drop of the religious background of the characters and the link to the novel-writing process makes this a little more interesting.
I veered from laughing at the cuteness of Tanner and Sebastian as they find the courage to act on their feelings for each other to almost crying at the complications they faced. Throughout, I was struck by the maturity that these characters showed – can’t imagine anyone being so clued-up at that age. Yet there was an underlying bitter-sweet feeling as the shadow of Sebastian’s struggle with his religion never went away.
This was not a book I’d heard much about prior to reading and that feels such a shame as it had such a positive feel to it. It created such a range of emotions, and there was a real honesty to the characters/their experience that I couldn’t help but fall for.

 

‘The Mercies’ – Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Having only read Hargrave’s fiction for younger readers I was unsure quite what to expect of this. The subject immediately made me think of The Crucible and I was intrigued by the remote physical setting and the historical setting. Having just finished, I am struck by the immersive quality to this. It caught me quite unawares and I have to say that for such an unpleasant subject it was a pleasure to read.

The book begins relatively slowly. We’re introduced to the islanders and we begin with the depiction of the dreadful storm that killed all but a handful of men. Watching Maren and the other women as they realise their husbands/sons/brothers are never coming home was a heart-wrenching moment.

Knowing that from this point forwards they would have to find ways to live with the unimaginable immediately created sympathy with their experience, which certainly helps when we see what is in store for them.

I have been fascinated by the posts Hargrave has shared on Twitter showing her visit to the place which inspired this read. It was remote, and it reminded me of the books I’ve read about life on places such as St Kilda. Even in the modern world such places are remote, and it takes a certain mindset to survive in such conditions. To do so in the time in which this story is set must have been tough.
Following the details we’re given about the island women I was unsure why we suddenly switched to the character of Ursa, the daughter of a shipowner who lives in relative ease in Bergen. When her father organises a marriage to Absalom Cornet we learn that Ursa is to become the wife of this man she’s never met before – a man sent from Scotland to travel to Vargø and investigate the lives of the women left behind.

Although we’re told this focuses on the real-life events on Vardø and the witch trials of 1621, the sense of unease created once Ursa arrives on the island was distinctly uncomfortable. Seeing this young girl struggle to develop as she becomes little more than the property of her husband was uncomfortable. Though she grows closer to Maren it doesn’t take long before relationships fracture and the hunt begins.

Once the details of the witch hunt were in the open, Hargrave holds little back in depicting the true horror of this time. At the time of reading I was struck by the obvious pride felt by Absalom and others at what they were doing. Seeing the way the women turned on each other was definitely uncomfortable, and yet there were little glimpses of positivity in the way Maren and Ursa turned to each other and sought comfort where they could.

This is one of those stories that I could imagine reading again, delighting in the depiction of setting and characters. It is both brutal and tender. The ending left many questions, but it also served to resolve some of the concerns raised. I can’t wait to see what others I know make of this.

 

‘Amelia Westlake Was Never Here’ – Erin Gough

 

It seems this book was simply published as ‘Amelia Westlake’ everywhere but the US, but I have to say that I love my bright pink cover…it’s the kind of cover that jumps out at you and immediately screams ‘pick me up’…so when I read the summary I was so excited to try this.

Our story centres around two very different students at Rosemead School, Harriet Price (top grade student and all-rounder) and Will Everhart (trouble-causer), and the way they find themselves colluding in a potentially life-changing scheme. I was rather surprised to see this had an Australian setting as the depiction of the characters was quite generic.

The girls find themselves in trouble for making comments about the sexist behaviour of the swimming coach. Together they come up with a plan to raise awareness of this issue, without putting their names to it, by inventing a student who voices the views that many share but nobody has the courage to articulate.

Before they know it the mystery student – Amelia Westlake – has got herself involved in a number of incidents. The staff are desperate to out our erstwhile student, and the other girls are desperate to see what she’ll do next.

Harriet and Will were totally unprepared for the effects Amelia’s presence has on them. How far will they go to maintain this deception? How far can they push their attempts to change the status quo? And, perhaps the one thing readers will be most keen to find out, how long until they realise their feelings for each other are not quite as simple as they each believe?

‘Full Disclosure’ – Camryn Garrett

Simone is, in so many ways, your typical teen. And in others, she’s not. In ‘Full Disclosure’ we get what is best describe as a ‘warts-and-all’ insight into her life.

Early on we’re told Simone has HIV. We get a lot of information about the practicalities of living with this, but we also get to look at the emotional support offered to teens in this situation. Simone is also a black girl, adopted by two gay men, who is exploring her sexuality. There’s a lot to take in.

Although raising awareness of our attitudes to HIV seems to be high on the agenda, the main story focuses us on Simone trying to work out how she feels about Miles and her directing a school production.

There’s a lot going on in this story. Simone and her friends are refreshingly frank in their discussions about sex and relationships, and the focus on her growing feelings for Miles is probably what many readers will empathise with. I felt the way the narrator showed Simone getting on with her life was such a positive message, and yet the prejudice shown by many of the characters highlights just how necessary this story is.

Thanks to NetGalley for granting me access to this in exchange for my thoughts.

 

‘Wranglestone’ – Darren Charlton

A curious concept. Post-apocalyptic world and we don’t know what happened, but people are scared of those who are different.

Our focus is on a small community who live on a lake. They look out for those they call The Restless Ones, and the only time they truly fear is winter. Winter is when the ice comes, the lake freezes and the zombies can come.

Peter, our main character, has never felt as if he fits in. Interested in sewing and other activities unsuited to this outdoorsy life, Peter harbours a secret crush on his neighbour, Cooper, who is the original outdoor hero. Two seemingly polar opposites, but it’s okay – this love is definitely reciprocated and the story is about how the pair can use their feelings for each other to try and make a difference to their world.

When Peter fails to check ID of someone trying to come ashore, he sets in motion a quite unusual sequence of events. He comes to question everything he has been told since he was little. Nothing is quite as it seems, and the question is to what extent this can change people’s lives.

At its heart this is a romance, but there’s suggestions of a bigger story coming into play. I enjoyed it a lot more than I was expecting to, but I did feel the latter part of the story was a little frenetic. We don’t know exactly who certain characters are or how they just happen to turn up at the right time, but there’s certainly more to these scenarios than we’ve been told here.

Thanks to NetGalley for letting me read this in exchange for my review.

 

‘We Used to Be Friends’ – Amy Spalding

The title pulls no punches. This is all about the break-up of all break-ups, and though it’s upsetting on occasion I couldn’t help but warm to both James and Kat.
James and Kat were paired together in kindergarten and have been best friends since. Our story opens with them about to go to college, and things are no longer looking as rosy as they were.

The premise itself is quite straightforward. Two friends are developing and their relationship is shifting. They’re dealing with family issues, evolving relationships and the movement into adulthood. So, what’s special about this?

For me, it comes down to the innovative structure of the novel. We get alternating viewpoints, which allow us to see both perspectives, and then there’s the construction of those views. James’s story begins with her about to start college, reflecting on the last year and examining just how her relationship with her best friend came to such a place. Kate’s story opens at the beginning of senior year, full of promise and excitement as she begins a new relationship and slowly comes to learn some of her flaws.

Both characters were flawed. Kat was highly dramatic and self-obsessed, while James was reticent to discuss emotions never mind deal with them. Cutting between time/situation lent a fascinating air to this. We could see how it would end up, and the signs were obvious but both seemed unable to do anything to salvage it.

Though I enjoyed the style of telling, and grew to feel some compassion for both characters, I’m not entirely sure what the message of this book is. Relationships change. Sometimes people aren’t what you thought. Too much introspection is a bad thing. Too much self-obsession is a bad thing.

I’m grateful to NetGalley for granting me access to this in exchange for my thoughts. This might be one to return to upon publication (scheduled for January 2020).

‘Swipe Right for Murder’ – Derek Milman

Aidan, our main character, is a bit of a pampered young man. He’s friends with some wealthy people, and this explains why we find him at the start of the book in an exclusive hotel. At this point I didn’t find myself that keen on him – he was very focused on the impression he gives and too bothered about himself to really take note of those around him.

Finding himself alone in this lovely hotel in New York City, Aidan gets himself logged onto a dating app and tries to find himself a no-strings hook-up for the evening. Effort one is someone he knows from school, and things don’t go well. Rather than lock himself away, Aidan tries again.

Second time round he’s met by a rather older man called Benoit who keeps asking him about an item he’s meant to deliver. Aidan (naturally) has no idea what he’s talking about. When he wakes up and finds his one-night stand dead beside him Aidan realises he’s got himself into something very very dangerous.
What follows is high-adrenaline action-packed stuff, the likes of which I love reading about but if there was the slightest hint of it happening in real life I’d curl under the nearest table before running away.

Aidan manages to drag himself through a range of incredibly bizarre scenarios. He’s being used by the FBI to bait a highly-organised terrorist organisation and his picture is plastered all over the news. Given the profile of this group/scenario what happens seems quite unbelievable, but it doesn’t stop it being good fun to read.

‘All Eyes on Us’ – Kit Frick

All Eyes On Us focuses on two girls – Amanda and Rosalie – who seem very different, but who have a lot more in common than they realise…Carter Shaw, son of a local businessman.

Amanda is part of his social circle and their families have been pushing for them to be a couple since they were little. Amanda’s life is mapped out for her. College with Carter, a long engagement and then children, turning a blind eye to Carter’s indiscretions because that’s what’s expected of her. For years, she’s gone along with this but when Amanda starts to receive anonymous text messages she begins to question the wisdom of her life choices.

Amanda knows Carter has not always been faithful to her. She knows he is currently seeing Rosalie on the side. But what neither she nor Carter knows is that Rosalie is actually using Carter as a cover for the fact that she is a lesbian and her fundamentalist Christian parents can’t accept her choices. Forced to hide who she is, Rosalie decides to use Carter as her cover, while seeing her girlfriend in secret.

The messages that both girls receive are meant to be vaguely threatening, but there’s a limit to what people can do if you don’t succumb to their threats. Unfortunately, in the vein of the Pretty Little Liars characters, the girls in this respond to the messages and threats and start to let them rule what decisions they make. This is frustrating and leads them into quite unrealistic scenarios.

The book is a bit slow to get going as we establish the characters of Amanda and Rosalie. There’s a lot of focus on the parents of Amanda and Carter which makes little sense at first, but we do realise its significance eventually. My biggest gripe was with the character of Carter who was, in essence, a serial cheater and not a particularly appealing character.

Thanks to NetGalley for the advance copy in exchange for my thoughts. This is a definite must-read for fans of the Pretty Little Liars books.

‘Infinity Son’ – Adam Silver

Silvera’s evident love of the fantasy genre is laid out for us in his intro, and is splashed all over the pages of this foray into the genre.
The story itself has some interesting elements. Definitely loving the phoenixes and the details linked to the idea of rebirth. There’s hints of some intriguing developments between the characters of Emil and Mirabelle, and Brighton’s story looks as if it’ll pick up and get a whole lot more interesting in the future. This was a quick read but it was not, unfortunately for me, the hit I was expecting and there’s a few reasons for this.
The main reason I found this not wholly successful was the lack of time taken to establish the world in which it was set. We were plunged straight in, and little was explained in a way that would have made sense to me. Some of the answers were given later, but there was a lot assumed about the world of the narrative and I really wanted more detail so I could understand how this situation had come about.
The next difficulty I had was with the characterisation. It took a while to feel any sense of difference between the characters of Emil and Brighton, and simply hammering the point home that one is obsessed by social media isn’t enough to do this. To suddenly find myself with another viewpoint – which wasn’t really set-up – also made it wobble slightly as I tried to keep track of who was doing what (though this may say more about me).
For some readers, the love interest that develops partway through will definitely get them excited. The feelings Emil has for Ness are hard to ignore, but they are really superficial (guess we have to start somewhere). The initial scene where their feelings were apparent felt like some kind of wish-fulfilment exercise, and Silvera’s comments about his reaction to Cassandra Clare’s series does explain this a little. It seemed they might be able to get into a more nuanced relationship but the events in the narrative make this difficult. No matter how he dresses it up (and perhaps his explanations will make people swoon over his resolve to hurt the one he loves to prevent someone else doing worse) I can’t quite get my head around the way Ness treats Emil. When you look at it in a more detached way it seems horribly abusive and not the basis for a good relationship. Granted, it’s early stages so perhaps this will develop in a slightly different way.
So, all in all, this was a story where someone got to revel in their love for a genre but I can’t help but feel things would be better if the style was a little less exaggerated, world-building was established and we weren’t in some whirlwind attempt to cram excitement onto every page to guarantee people reading on. Sometimes, less is more.
Due for release in early 2020, so it’ll be interesting to see how/if it changes by then. However, I’m really grateful to NetGalley for letting me read this so early in exchange for my honest thoughts.